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New database shines light on foreign lobbying in the U.S.

From confusing guidelines to a lack of enforcement, the U.S.’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which helps monitor foreign lobbyists in the U.S., has been plagued by numerous issues since its inception in 1938.

This week, though, a new database came online that is already helping clean up one of the biggest issues bogging FARA: a lack of accessible data.

The Foreign Lobby Watch project, published by the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org, went live earlier this week. The project attempts to collate all of the information maintained in the unwieldy FARA database, which is itself housed on the Department of Justice’s website.

While the material on FARA’s website is publicly available, a lack of clear search functions make the database almost unusable for those who don’t already know what they’re looking for.

As OpenSecrets’ Anna Massoglia and Geoff West wrote, “Today we’re making available, for the first time, a searchable database of foreign interests spending on lobbying and influence in the United States… In addition to a full-text search feature, Foreign Lobby Watch data is now searchable by lobbyist or political operative name, registrant, country, and foreign principal.”

Indeed, the database has already provided eye-opening information, at least as it pertains to figuring out which countries have funneled the most money to lobbyists under the Trump administration. All told, foreign governments and foreign principals have already spent over a half-billion dollars since early 2017.

The countries leading the charge, however, aren’t the usual suspects tied to foreign lobbying in the U.S., like Israel and Saudi Arabia (although those two countries are both in the top 10). Rather, the top two nations who have seen either governments or companies spend the most on lobbying in the U.S. during the Trump era are South Korea, which has already spent over $70 million, and Japan, which has already spent over $50 million.

Perhaps the most surprising entrant on the list of top lobbying expenditures among countries is the Cayman Islands, a British Overseas Territory that has already shelled out more than $20 million on lobbying — more than countries like Saudi Arabia or Germany. The massive lobbying campaign, according to OpenSecrets, has centered on attempts to attract tourism. It also happens to coincide with London’s recent push to clean up the Cayman Islands’ notorious offshore service industry, on which the islands’ economy rests.

As the database illustrates, the South Korean government has also been the most deep-pocketed entity when it comes to lobbying expenditures, shelling out nearly $54 million since early 2017. The other top-dollar foreign principals are the Japan External Trade Organization, Tourism Ireland, and the government of the Cayman Islands.

But total numbers aren’t the only pieces of information that sets the new project apart from FARA’s own database. FARA, unfortunately, relies heavily on PDF scans in its database, making accessible searches remarkably difficult. The Foreign Lobby Watch project has now made all of these documents searchable by text. As such, users can search for any documents that contain words, phrases, or names like “Donald Trump,” “Jared Kushner,” or “Paul Manafort.”

The database is certainly not a panacea for all of FARA’s woes; despite a recent spike in registrations, FARA still remains woefully under-enforced. However, it’s a leap forward when it comes to transparency and accessibility alike — and will likely keep paying dividends moving forward.


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